The Other Shoe Drops: Away Fires CEO Steph Korey After Months-Long Search for Her Replacement

[Update, 22 January 2020: One month after being fired, Korey was reinstated as co-CEO. My original piece, which given her reinstatement is seemingly all wet, remains below.]

Charity L. Scott, reporting for The Wall Street Journal, “Online Luggage Startup Away Says CEO Is Stepping Down”:

Away, an online seller of luggage that investors valued at $1.4 billion earlier this year, said Chief Executive Steph Korey is stepping down.

Ms. Korey will become executive chairman of the New York City-based startup. Stuart Haselden, who is departing as chief operating officer at Lululemon Athletica Inc., will succeed her as CEO, according to the company. Away co-founder Jen Rubio will remain president and chief brand officer.

The news comes after an article in the Verge last week criticized Ms. Korey’s management style as harsh, citing several former employees unhappy with the work environment. Ms. Korey apologized in a statement on Twitter last week, saying she has worked with an executive coach to “improve as a leader.”

Away said the CEO search has been under way since this spring, and Mr. Haselden will take over Jan. 13. Lululemon announced his departure Monday.

[Disclosure: Away has sponsored 21 episodes of my podcast, The Talk Show, in the last three years, and they are on the schedule for an upcoming episode. The following is what I’d write if they never had and never would sponsor my show or website.]

It surely is not spin that Away’s board — led by Rubio, Korey’s fellow co-founder — had been searching to replace Korey for months. You can’t hire the COO of Lululemon in three days in light of a PR crisis.

So I think it’s pretty clear that The Verge inadvertently got played. They got fed the story and ran with it in a way that pinned all of the company’s purported cultural problems on Korey. All six quoted sources were anonymous former employees (and, coincidentally or not, women). There was a lot about that Verge story that struck me as weird. Why shouldn’t the CEO be furious that the company somehow sent customers suitcases that had been used in a beach photo shoot and were covered with sand and other debris?1 But one of the strangest things was that while it was ostensibly a story about the company, the actual story felt almost entirely like a hit on Korey, personally. No other executive’s Slack messages were quoted as evidence of the perceived cultural problems.2

So now the narrative is not “Away fires woman CEO and co-founder, replaces her with a man”. Instead, the narrative is “Away fires CEO who created ‘toxic culture’, brings in fresh leadership” — a narrative that wouldn’t be possible without The Verge’s story last Thursday. It also seems clear that Korey had no idea this was coming — her statement on Twitter responding to The Verge report sure doesn’t sound like the words of a woman who realizes her company board was on the cusp of replacing her after a months-long executive search.

It’s entirely possible that Korey really was responsible for a “toxic work culture”, and the truthful narrative really is “Away fires CEO who created ‘toxic culture’, brings in fresh leadership”. I’m just pointing out it beggars belief that it’s pure coincidence this story leaked to The Verge just before Away was set to fire Korey, such that when the company made the announcement the controversy was still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Update: Let me clarify my theory here. I doubt the Away board “planted” this story at The Verge. I’ve struck out the word “fed” in the phrase “got fed the story” above to make that clear, but I’m leaving it as struck-out text in fairness. I think The Verge’s sources for the story are actual disgruntled ex-Away employees, who really did believe that they should have been allowed to use their work-supplied Slack for inappropriate-for-work communication and who really do believe that calling it “unacceptable” when customers were shipped dented, dirty suitcases is “toxic”.

But if you take the perspective of a cutthroat startup board — and these are some mean people — it’s not outlandish to think these former employees could have been simply nudged to go to the press with their Steph Korey grievances, via a route untraceable back to the Away board. I doubt that. But I don’t rule it out. (One of the companies funding three of Away’s four rounds is Global Founders Capital, led by Oliver Samwer, who once closed an email to a company he invested in with “I am the most aggressive guy on internet [sic] on the planet. I will die to win and i [sic] expect the same from you!” Sounds to me like a guy who would maybe play some dirty pool.)

The Verge’s story was reported over weeks or months. (Months, I hear.) During their reporting they contacted Away for comment and response. Now-former CEO Steph Korey was even quoted in the story. What I think happened is that once Jen Rubio and the board — who were already plotting Korey’s ouster — became aware of the story, and the all-in-on-outrage-culture/startups-are-toxic angle it was taking, they simply let it happen without pushing back whatsoever. No vast conspiracy necessary — just let it happen. The most conspicuous thing between the publication of The Verge’s original story on Thursday and Monday night’s announcement that Korey had been replaced is that neither the company nor Rubio offered a single word of support for Korey. Not even something milquetoast or anodyne. Not a fucking word. She was hung out to dry.

The only response was Korey’s own statement, issued from her personal Twitter account, and again, it did not sound at all like the words of a CEO who knew she was “stepping down” or who had, as now claimed, personally been involved in the search for her successor. What they sound like are the words of a CEO who thought the company and its board had her back and had no idea they’d been plotting to oust her for months.

  1. Here’s the anecdote in question from The Verge:

    When the photo team took suitcases to a shoot in the Hamptons and brought them back banged up and covered in sand, an employee who’d started that week was blamed for the “unacceptable” error and called out publicly on Slack. (The bags had eventually made their way to customers, and executives were furious.) “It could’ve just been a co-worker pulling them aside and saying this isn’t cool,” Erica says. “It felt like they were publicly outing the situation so that everybody could follow along.”

    Wouldn’t the problem be if the CEO just shrugged something like that off? How does sending those obviously-used suitcases to customers even happen? They weren’t just dented, but dirty. If a waiter served a customer a half-eaten sandwich, I’d expect the manager to immediately berate him in front of the other staff in the kitchen — not take him aside and say “Hey, that isn’t cool.” ↩︎

  2. The Verge’s next-day follow-up also struck me as odd. Their headline and sub-head: “Here’s the Leaked Memo in Which Away Tells Employees Not to Fave the Verge’s Investigation: CEO Steph Korey Apologizes for Her Behavior — Just as Away Clamps Down on Employee Speech”. But read the memo. Away wasn’t “clamping down on employee speech” — they were dealing with a serious PR crisis. What company in the midst of a PR crisis would not tell employees not to talk about it? Well-run companies speak with one voice, whether in the midst of a crisis or not, but especially in the midst of a crisis. ↩︎︎